How to Build a School: Guidance from The Ministry of Learning

Photo by Nguyen Khanh Ly on Unsplash

The Ministry of Learning requests that you use the following guidelines when submitting a school design:

Define the problem you aim to solve and make sure those funding the school agree. The problem might be, ‘How do we best prepare our children for their futures?’ or ‘What’s the most effective way to equip and empower global citizens?’ or ‘How do we provide the most purposeful teaching and learning on the planet/to save the planet?’

Problems such as, ‘How do we get the best exam scores?’ or ‘How do we get the best school grading?’ will not be accepted.

Clarify the purpose served by the school. Link this to the problem being solved. Include a causal connective. E.g.: ‘Our school prepares children for their futures so that they have meaningful and productive lives.’ Or, ‘Our school equips children with appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes in order to empower them to make significant global contributions.

Vague purposes such as, ‘To love learning and to be happy.’ will not be accepted.

Decide who will work at and for your school. Choose people who will commit to solving the problem and to fulfilling the purpose. Prioritise attitude, integrity and character over knowledge, skills and experience. Don’t rely on interviews. Rely on the testimony of people you trust who have known the candidate through thick and thin. Give these people the best professional life possible with the resources available.

Choose people who say ‘we’ as much as ‘I’.

Buy or make a curriculum that your people can use to solve the problem and fulfill the purpose. Build in slack and make it flexible. As the world changes, change your curriculum.

Do not choose a curriculum to please someone who is not invested in your problem and your purpose.

Use a range of pedagogies that bring the curriculum to life. Let your people thrive in their teaching. Let them play to their strengths and their passions – so long as they stick to the problem and the purpose.

Do not make everyone teach in the same way. Conformity leads to mediocrity. It raises the weak and lowers the strong to the same level.

Insist that everyone holds themselves to account against the problem, the purpose, the curriculum and their chosen pedagogy. Give an account of the school’s performance to whoever is paying for it and, more importantly, to the children who learn there.

Do not be held to account by anyone who is not fully invested in the purpose, the problem and the people.

Co-create about 10 single page quality statements that describe what’s seen and heard when the school is doing ONE to SIX well, safely and legally. Evaluate lived experience against the expectation expressed in these statements. Explore what accounts for any difference and address it. Statements might include: Quality Teacher, Quality Learner, Quality Leader, Quality Inclusion and Diversity, Quality Safeguarding, Quality Character, Quality Kindness etc.

Do not create any policies. Quality statements work; they become dog-eared not dusty.

Grow through regular, collaborative professional learning with the help of invited experts, consultants and colleagues.

Do not accept any external initiative, advice or consultation unless it authentically supports ONE to SEVEN.

Stages ONE to EIGHT will not go to plan or happen in order. Anticipate barriers, challenges, setbacks and revisions. Prepare for surprises and shocks with an open mind and an anti-fragile heart.

To receive an information pack and arrange a free consultation to help you build your own school, please contact the Ministry of Learning. In the future. But not too far into the future I hope.

Open Letter to Teachers, Leaders and the DfE

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Holding too tight, it slips through fingers; bearing too much, it breaks.

You know me, I’m tough, I’m resilient. There’s nothing rocks me. Ever. But see this tear here on my cheek. That’s new. Headteacher

15 pages of vacancies on the website. There’s usually 1 this time of year. Headteacher

I am a coach, a trainer, a mediator. I’m trusted in confidence to listen without judgement; to question with purpose and to challenge with integrity. Therefore I hear the unfiltered, the unmitigated, the hard facts and raw emotion of how it is in schools right now.

In 30 years I’ve never seen an educational landscape quite like this one. The ‘official’ pretense of normality and denial of reality within schools is damaging our greatest asset: our teachers and school leaders.

This is what I see; this is what I hear:

Schools deserving medals for their ingenious approaches to COVID catch up. Yet receiving only pressure to broaden the curriculum once more.

Leaders navigating the daily volatility of staffing and case numbers; being creative, committed, quick thinking. Yet treated as if nothing is amiss; as if we are back to normality.

Teachers remaining dedicated, skilled, caring, resilient; applying their craft to the diverse needs of nearly two years of learning disruption. Yet facing the uncertainty of workplace safety (COVID/no COVID).

Headteachers standing by their values in the midst of overwhelm and an onslaught of unnecessary pressure. Yet fearing inspection; anxious that they are not good enough.

This is what I see; this is what I hear.

Schools deserve inspiration not inspection.

Schools are worthy of empathy not unrealistic expectations.

Schools need kindness not criticism.

Therefore those who hold schools to account, at any level, should think first; think hard before any request, any demand, any policy and judgement. Test plans against four criteria:

  1. Will this protect and preserve the wellbeing, capacity and expertise of educators and educational leaders?
  2. Will this preserve and enhance the efficacy of a school?
  3. Will this enhance and empower educators to prepare children for 2030, 2040 and beyond?
  4. Is this inspirational? Is this empathetic? Is this kind?

Only act with four clear yeses. If you cannot act with four yeses, then do not act.

Loosen your grip, reduce the burden. Help schools be proud of what they have done; help them emerge from pandemic to the inevitable endemic with praise and with heads held high. And make your thank-yous for this, genuine, authentic and unconditional.

The NHS continues to save the present. Empower teachers to save the future. If we do not, that future will slip through our fingers; that future will break.

The New Way to Grade Schools

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

I’ve invented a new way to grade schools. It goes like this:

At end of the scale you’ve got ‘1’. Next to that is ‘C’. After that is ‘Square’ and finally ‘Blue’. So the new grading goes: 1, C, Square, Blue. It’s good isn’t it?!

No! I hear you mutter. No it’s not. Really? Why not? What could be simpler? Four simple grades to communicate the results of an inspection; to let everyone know how a school is doing. A shorthand to judgement and information to help parents choose where to live.

Oh. They’re not from the same category you say. Ah, I see. It should be all numbers or all letters or all colours or shapes to have any meaning and consistency. Ok. Fair point. I’ll have another go. How about this one:

Outstanding – Good – Requires Improvement – Inadequate. There. Any better?

No! NO! you say. Same problem?

Oh yes, I see. The opposite of ‘outstanding’ is ‘mundane’, commonplace, that’s a scale of presence, how much a thing appears different to others, I see. ‘Requires improvement’ goes all the way along its own scale to ‘doesn’t require improvement’. So that’s assessing need. ‘Good’ offsets ‘bad’ (which are moral and ethical judgements) and ‘inadequate’ is the opposite of ‘adequate’, describing quality. Presence, needs, ethics and quality. Four different scales mixed up into one. Hmm, that doesn’t work as a meaningful system does it.

Ok. Let me have one more think. I’m going to have 3 grades and they go like this:

Very effective – Effective – Not Effective Yet

Effective means doing the right thing = fully preparing children for their futures. The grade is simply that. Would that work? Would that be a better way? An internally congruent and criteria-referenced summary?

No. No it won’t work, I tell myself. Not unless we start printing it on banners outside schools, ignoring any other scales out there and agreeing on exactly what ‘effective’ means.

But maybe I’ve got this wrong. Maybe the single word grading is not part of a sliding scale of achievement. Maybe it’s just a ready shorthand telling you all you need to know about a school without having to dig any deeper. Yes. That’ll be it. So it’s like describing a person in a single word. He’s phlegmatic. She’s pusillanimous. They’re sycophantic. And that’s all they are. Hmm, this might just catch on. It’s going to save time and words and lots and lots of thinking.

Or maybe we should do what the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) do. You don’t get a requires improvement nuclear power station. Or an outstanding one for that matter. Teams from different facilities carry out extended onsite visits and engage in deep critical dialogue about improving practice to meet standards. A deep professional dialogue, Yes. I’ll go with that as a new way to grade schools: by the quality of professional dialogue. Does that work?

And this blog? I rate myself blue.

Thinking Stories to Save the World

©Jess Lucas Illustration from The King of Walls, Thinking Stories to Save the World, 2022

I am convinced (some would say over-optimistically) that in one of our classes, right now, today, is the child who will, one day, save the world.

There they are, listening to your input, writing, talking, thinking, looking out the window, messing about. All they need from you is empowerment, education and opportunity. It’s quite some reason for choosing to teach. And for continuing to do so, when the road is rough.

And that’s why the denial of learning is so devastating, so ridiculous, so stupid. Each child in school increases the chance of a better world. Each child is a thriving bundle of intelligence and curiosity, of energy, excitement and potential. Well, each one can be, if we let them.

Religion, poverty, hunger, gender-bias, logistics; the enemies of access.

UNICEF estimates our world tolerates 160 million child workers: some exploited and abused by strangers; some adding neccesary labour to their family’s survival. All denied their right to learning. 129 million girls are out of school, often trapped by tradition and patriarchy; pushed and locked into early roles of service and home-making.

And technically, every child on the planet could learn with a tablet. Satellite coverage, mesh networks, localised energy and an abundance of quality online content, all converge to make this a possibility. But is it a logistical reality? No, no it isn’t. A world that can’t yet coordinate its climate response, hasn’t even managed to put learning in all young hands. Many good folks are trying, I’ve worked with a few, but barriers of finance, politics and geography remain.

So a small part in saving the world, is my third storybook, due (2 years late) early 2022, highlighting issues like those above, presenting themes of vital significance as simple, original thinking narratives.

Thinking Stories to Open Your Mind got children thinking. Surprising Stories to Stimulate Creativity got them creating. Thinking Stories to Save the World has slightly weightier aspirations: contemporary and future challenges presented as quests and journeys, revelations and rebirths, as tragedy, as comedy and through the eyes of monsters and saviours. Tales to signpost the future.

I want all children to have the mindware for grappling with AI, climate change and technology, for thriving in shifting employment and for wrestling with the complex ethics of themes such as data, genetics and geopolitics; gender, equality, migration and wealth.

I want them all to have a chance to save the world and to participate fully in its care. Whether they are fortunate enough to be in school, or not.

Read My Eyes: the challenge for EYFS

My name is Elijah. I am 3 years and 7 twelfths of a year old. I will be 4 years old very soon. You can come to my party if you like. There will be crisps. But I might get to eat them all myself. And all the biscuits. And cake. If you’re not allowed to come it’ll be coz there might be another lockdown for COVID. So, I’ll get all the food for me if there is another lockdown. And the pizza. That’s good but it’s bad as well. I’ll have no one to play with. Again. And I’ve started school I have.

I’m a bit annoyed you know, in my life I’ve missed approximately 28 birthday parties, 75 park visits, 36 playdays and a holiday to Mallorca. And I’m only 3 years and 7 twelfths of a year old. That COVID. What a pain. Nearly half my life has been, “can’t go out, won’t be meeting up, shouldn’t visit them”. I mean how am I supposed to work out how other people tick when I don’t get to see them?

And, I’m also supposed to be all ready for school but I’m not. Even though I’ve already started. By now I think I should be getting over myself, just a little bit, by my age. You know, beginning to realise there’s other people in the world too, apart from me?, and that they maybe deserve a turn on the iPad too? Or with the Lego.

I wanted to have a go at sharing or turn-taking ready for school but I didn’t really have the opportunity to practise. I really wanted to nail that. Mummy and Karl have been very busy on their laptops so they’re no help. Sometimes when they finish a Zoom call I hear a swear come out. Although my vocabulary is not as developed as I’d want it to be by my age, I do have a reasonable command of workplace banter, and corporate profanity. That might come in handy.

And fights. And arguments. I really really wanted to have a go at those before school, so I’d be top of my game in the playground and at my social skills. But there simply hasn’t been the opportunity due to pandemic restrictions on travel and socialisation.

What I really wanted to do was that thing where you have a tantrum but you moderate it a bit so it’s not full on. Not full on like if you’re in public, say in Sainsburys where you go all red-faced shouty and stiff and then maybe roll about in the cheese aisle while mummy tries to get you to stop, without drawing attention to herself and having to use firm if acceptable force on you.

And I only wanted a Lego dragon. And some Haribo.

That kind of tantrum, but, but in a more refined way now I’m nearly 4 and practising for school. I wanted to try that with a friend, to get ready for the proper real disagreements in school. I wanted my friend to take my toy – then I go all ‘that’s mine I’m having it back‘ Sainsburys style but toned down coz I’m nearly 4, but still impressive. And I wanted to see what happened next and how we’d work it out and both of us get a mini Magnum from mummy at the end for calming down and not putting her in an awkward situation. In the cheese aisle. But I didn’t have a chance to do that before I went to school.

And talking. Oh my word. I’d expect to be much further on by now. You see my problem is this: I’ve not had much talk to listen to (see above) and anyway the adults have had their mouths covered since April 2020. How on earth am I supposed to get my mouth doing all those sounds if I can’t see what it looks like. I’ve got good at reading eyes and eyebrows though. I know what ‘really?’ looks like and also I know ‘I’m rather annoyed with you for embarrassing me in Sainsburys no you’re not having a dragon. or Haribo.‘ and ‘I hate Zoom as much as I hate my boss‘. I know what eyes and eyebrows do for those things. I just wish I’d been able to see the mouth shapes that go with them.

And now I’m at nursery school. My teacher is doing a right grand job but some of the other kids here are giving her the runaround they really are. I mean I’m a bit behind I know but I can’t imagine what it’s been like for Kyra or Ollie. I swear they’ve not said a single word since they started with me a few weeks ago. And they get really arsy in the morning when their daddies try to leave for work. They cling on and do that ‘poor me how dare you do this to me call yourself my parent‘ routine.

Miss tries hard. I’m only guessing at this (she being an experienced nursery practitioner and me just a nearly 4 year old) but I think she’s prioritising our well-being which is exactly how I’d approach things. She’s gone and baselined us all and I think I did alright. I suppose I’ll be able to revisit her targets for me at my next appraisal. Kyra and Ollie ran off when she tried to talk to them.

But even though she’s jolly she is a bit jumpy. Like someone’s watching over her shoulder whispering that she should be moving us on faster when all she wants to do is give us a good start at a speed that doesn’t turn us off learning. Or make us go all Sainsburys.

I think I saw her crying in her car in the car park yesterday and talking on her phone. I hope she’s alright. She is very nice but she was very sad. I knew she was sad. I could see it in her eyes and her eyebrows but I really wanted to know what words the shapes in her mouth were making…

Your Best Professional Life: How do You Score?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

My son, severely dyslexic, was nurtured by nursery school, near-destroyed by upper primary, rescued by secondary and launched into the world, skilled and confident by university. I offer gratitude unbounded to my fellow educators who contributed.

He’s now thriving in a job he loves; one that uses his talents, respects his passion and understands his gifts. His company is simply the next stage of learning (albeit paid). It aspires to build a workplace where employees have, ‘No better professional life.‘ Expectations are high, as are committment and working hours, but my son and his team have the flexibility and autonomy to do what they do best in a system that values their contributions. He is a professional.

So, naturally, I got thinking about teaching. Can you honestly say the words, ‘there is no better professional life for me?‘ Well, before you jump in, let’s quantify and qualify the question we’re answering.

Here are five features of professionalism: autonomy, accountability, mastery, service and status. Score yourself out of 5 for each one, add them up, then decide.


Do you have the freedom to apply your professional experience, skills and knowledge in a way you see fit and in a manner that allows you to do your job the best you can? (0-5, 5 is yes)


Are you held to account for your professional decisions by an official body with whom you share a purpose and one that understands your day to day practice? (0-5)


Do you have the opportunity and motivation to develop your professional practice to the highest level? (0-5)


Does your profession and the part you play in it add value to the people it serves? Are you fulfilled by the work you do for others? (0-5)


Are you and your professional contributions publicly praised, valued and respected by your organisation, by your community and by your nation? (0-5)

Add up your scores*. The maximum is 25 (you are living your best professional life). Less than 15, maybe something needs to change, fast. Less than 5? Could there be something wrong with the profession, or your choice of profession?

I’m keen to know how we are doing in this challenging time, and time of year. Mail me or vote on the Twitter poll here.

*disclaimer: this is an exploratory piece to prompt discussion and thought, not something on which you should (solely) base a career move. Or a revolution.

Well-being in a Single Word

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

I would be a whole lot more effective in my job without Ofsted looming.” – anonymous (obviously) words from a wonderful headteacher I work alongside. Sometimes the observer negatively affects the quality of the very system they hope to improve, simply by observing it. Or threatening to, at 24 hrs notice.

However, this post is not an Ofsted critique. Plenty of time for that later, believe me, it’s coming. No, this is about a single word for managing the stress and anxiety which, for many of the professionals I know, is embodied in the anticipation of inspection; is compounded by impotence in the face of external judgement; and is amplified by 18 months of pandemic disruption.

But things are what they are. Let’s not use our precious energy pushing back against systems that won’t budge and histories that will never change. Let’s put the uncontrollables aside and choose to focus on our valuable selves.

Compassion starts in the mirror.

One-Word Well-Being

Well-being only needs a glance. A Glance. G-L-A-N-C-E = a memorable summary of six actions to protect mental health and well-being (NEF, 2008). You’ve most likely heard this before; maybe tried it, forgotten, tried again, moved on to something else. But it’s the one I return to; a different aspect helping each time; a gift that keeps on giving.

A simple theme connects the six ideas. I’ll share that later and tell you about a good friend of mine who combined them all, to save herself, to pull herself out of a dark pit she’d been pushed into.

G. Give

Give authentically and the gift you receive back is relief from your own struggles. When attention rests on another’s needs, yours pause. You face outwards rather than in; absorbed in someone else, not yourself.

I learnt this as a heart-broken, navel-gazing under grad. A week-5 break up and my following mega-sulk was transformed by a friend, J, who invited me to volunteer with her. Riding for the Disabled (RDA) taught me humility and generosity, and prompted regular work with MENCAP and Gateway for the rest of my university days.

Give a smile when someone needs it; a word of praise or support or kindness; an unexpected visit; give time, a minute of full attention, ten, fifteen, whatever, it’s not the quantity but the intent.

L. Learn

We know how learning works. It’s our business. But do we recall the joy of discovery, of finding out, of mastery? When did you last feel good about learning?

When I first went freelance – leaving safe and secure employment behind – I had a bit of time on my hands. A lot of time on my hands. I taught myself to juggle. It took 14 days. But the feeling, the feeling when the third ball stayed up with the first two, and stayed up over and over and over again, round and round. I still remember that 20 years later. Excitement, empowerment, joy; I could think of nothing else but that achievement. That’s what learning feels like and, surely, it’s what we wish for our pupils.

And for you? What will you learn? Where will you find that joy?

A. Be Active

If you laid out, end to end, all the research papers citing the health benefits of being outdoors, then walked their length, it would be a good thing.

Trees release phytoncides which boost immune systems; walking protects joints; exercise reduces the risk of major illness; and simply being in nature protects our mental health.

I’m so grateful to live near trees, near nature, near ancient tracks and woodland and paths that lead for miles across chalk downs. And when I’m working in cities, I choose to walk. Even in the crowds, fizzing and surging with power and noise, there is peace in the rhythm of walking.

Advice abounds for exercise. How active are you? What might you gain by being more active?

N. Notice the moment

The past is gone and usually mis-remembered; the future is not here yet, and often skewed by expectation and bias. There is absolutely nothing to worry about in this moment now. Hold up your hand. Notice nothing else. Look at the detail, the skin, the finger prints, the nails, scars, marks, jewelry. Notice only your hands in only this moment. Give the same kind of attention to cooking, walking, eating. Be mindful of only your moment.

Anxiety is fear of a future that has not happened; regret is pain for a past long gone. I’ve been saddened to work with people who desperately want their past to be different, struggle to let it go. It’s a privilege to work with them as they begin to release their hurt, and start ‘living in the moment’. Catch yourself noticing a moment, maybe just before the lesson starts, or when it ends, as the room falls silent and your valuable work is done.

C: Connect

In my last post, traits of the introvert and extrovert were noted. Both need other people but in different ways. Relationships offer connection, esteem and networks to keep loneliness at bay. ‘Aloneness’ can be frightening and debilitating and we have varying tolerances to it.

We’ve missed other people. As we begin to re-connect, feel the power they give to you and know that you are giving back just as much. The mental and cognitive boosts we get from others are fuel to an engine, wind to a sail, sun to a flower.

E: Edit

Give, learn, be active, notice, connect. Mix them up, edit them as you wish. Experiment with one or more as time and energy allow. You are the one in charge of your well-being. It is one thing that you can control.

My good friend NK has recently reached the end of a devastating, complex and costly divorce. For 4 years she navigated hell in courts and counselling rooms, with friends, family and later, out of necessity, online. It’s settled now. There’s resolution and stability again. By accident rather than design, NK found herself taking strolls in nature with her daughter who was struggling at work. Giving her time, coaching her, walking with silence and tears, noticing the moment, reconnecting. She learned that the relationship with her beautiful girl could completely transform. NK herself found peace once more. She stumbled on well-being.

Glances seize the moment. They place you and the people around you into a now that transcends anxiety, overlooks fear and weakens the power of painful pasts and worrying futures.

Photo by Colton Duke on Unsplash

A New Variant (of Tiredness)

Finally. Finally I am back working face to face. Training, teaching, coaching, mentoring. The school landscape has changed over 16 months. Or rather, what’s underneath the landscape has changed. People are tired; tired in ways they’ve not known and in ways they struggle to describe or understand. I do my best to help them.

Here’s a thought to make sense of it:

March 2020. Chaos. The unknown, the unexpected, the overwhelming. The wicked. I wrote about that, here. We rallied, pulled on our reserves, created, adapted, struggled and (kind of) got there.

When I realised what COVID-19 actually meant to my work and my livelihood, I did three things:

  1. Wept
  2. Contacted my mentors
  3. Went against my style


I did. We did. The loss, the stress, the uncertainty. It didn’t fix anything but it released something.


I’m lucky to have (and, professionally, insist on having) a mentor, a supervisor and two go-to colleagues. I’m lucky. 4 people who have my professional back. They didn’t fix anything but helped me to see something different.


Hello. My name’s Mike and I’m an introvert. Don’t confuse the person you see in the training room, or at Zoom School, or in the conference hall or classroom with the one who needs to be alone at the end of the day.

Extrovert or introvert is about where you get your energy, not whether you like parties. I love being with people but I recharge alone. Extroverts refuel with others. We are not limited to one style but gravitate to our preference for rest and recovery.

So COVID came and what did I do? Hide away? Disappear? Go inside myself? ‘Introvert’ myself? No. The opposite. I reached out, made new contacts, started Zoom School, rekindled old connections. I went 100% extrovert. I went ‘outside my style’.

Why did I do this? Survival. The psyche goes, ‘You’ve got introvert covered off my friend. It’s your thing. You can do that. Extrovert? Needs work. Not your speciality. And this is a threatening time. All bases need covering, so address the imbalance. Get out there and extrovert!’

And I did. I loved it. But it was exhausting. Staying too long out of style without returning in style for nourishment had a cost, to health, to wellbeing and to my ability to do what I do best.

Maybe, right now, by accident or design, you’ve been ‘out of style’ for too long? Maybe your environment demands this of you. Maybe just knowing why you might feel like you feel – a new variant of tiredness – will go some way to helping.

New things need naming. Do you have, ‘out of style tiredness’?

A Smart View of Intelligence

MI Around the World

In June 2008, I squeezed into a tiny New York conference room along with 15 other educators. Advocates of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), and drawn from all global corners, we’d gathered to share our work and record its impact. Our host was indeed Prof. Howard Gardner, and the result of that meeting, nearly a year later, was ‘Multiple Intelligences Around the World‘.

I sat with a Chinese researcher called Happy, and Joy, a school reformer from the Philippines. Always vigilant for a chance to lighten the mood, I introduced myself as ‘Mild Discontent’, just in from the UK.

During the morning coffee break I found myself alone in an elevator with Howard who had misplaced his name badge. I spotted it on the floor by his foot, passed it to him and, joking again (how did I even get a place at that table?) said, ‘I should keep this, put it on ebay, sell it so I can afford the flight home.’ Howard laughed then made a serious point. He explained, with the authentic humility for which he’s known, that he’s not the ‘edu-rock-star’ folks make him out to be. He has his critics, and it’s been said that MI is the most debated and least implemented of all educational theories.

Gardner’s work extends far beyond MI: Project Zero, creativity, leadership, influence, good work (the ethics of vocation), and recent studies of higher education. But still, his concept of intelligence – nearly 40 years on – splits the audience.

It’s a cognitive-contextual theory with detractors and devotees lined up on either side of the classroom. It goes like this:

  • everyone is ‘intelligent’ (as defined by eight criteria),
  • ‘intelligence’ is multiple and diverse (at least eight kinds, in fact), and,
  • anyone can become more ‘intelligent’ (with the right resources and experiences).

However, when the battle starts, a shared definition of ‘intelligence’ is usually absent from the debate. Both sides argue well, but about different things.

How to be Smart With Intelligence

If we want a smart view of intelligence, we must first define it. Then we’ll know exactly what we’re arguing about. How does your take on ‘intelligence’ match these:

  • The ability to achieve complex goals. Max Tegmark, AI Researcher.
  • The ability to solve problems and create products that have value. Howard Gardner, Psychologist.
  • The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Most dictionaries.

13 years after that meeting in New York, MI still smolders away, flaring up now and then: rediscovered by an energetic new cohort of educators or re-demonised by conservative strategists. ‘Intelligence’ is a word we should define and use with great care. Give it a scope that’s deep and wide and everyone can be part of it, everyone’s abilities can be valued. Restrict its reach and we’ll create an elitist, unhelpful and divisive world.

Everyone is intelligent; everyone is valuable; everyone succeeds.

Here’s one of my books from that time. Still relevant; more so now as the world demands diverse skills sets and flexible working. Feel free to pay ¬£57 for it. Or 96p (plus P&P). I’m sure you’ll use your intelligence to decide.

A Balanced View of Bloom’s Taxonomy

The way it’s presented is not helpful. Nor is ‘taxonomy’, both inferring hierarchy, status; class- or even caste-defined thinking. ‘Low order thinking’ – knowledge and understanding; ‘high order thinking’ – application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. Really? Is one kind better, worse, less or more than any other?

After decades of helping adults and children to think better, may I propose this:

All thinking is equal.


How on earth is this ‘low order’? Bottom of the pile?

Without it, nothing can happen. So often the battle ground of traditionalists and progressives – the former zealously guarding it as purveyor of cultural and historical legacies; a necessary handing down of national identity, threatened by ‘soft skills’ and ‘creativity’.

The latter cite the flexible-future workplace, technology and the need for innovative skill sets. Knowledge is changing and on tap – at the tap of a screen. Why fill up on facts?

Both sides cling to outdated, biased positions.

There’s a joy in knowing. There’s a joy in NOT knowing and struggling with the quest, using the skills of finding out.

Skills bring knowledge to life; knowledge gives skills purpose.

‘I know’ is so much more than ‘I know a fact, I can recall it for you here, in this exam.’

In James Cameron’s innovative CGI epic, Avatar, the ‘Na’vi’ people look each other in the eye and say, ‘I see you.’ They mean, ‘I know you. I really do know who you are and how we connect to each other.’


In Robert Macfarlane’s magnum opus, Underland, the earth-beneath is exposed. Enchanting, horrific, illegal, deadly and magical, Macfarlane takes us into caves, sinkholes, abandoned military bases, forests, mines and the complex tunnel systems underneath cities. To really comprehend something, he argues, one must ‘stand under it’. Under-stand.

Knowing and understanding dance around each other. Try to pin them down with difference, it’s tricky. Understanding is ‘getting it’; relating it to other things; categorising, connecting, correlating. Really knowing. See? Knowing is understanding is knowing.

Think about someone you know very, very well. Say, ‘I know you.’ Say, ‘I understand you.’ What do you feel each time. There’s the difference, or the similarity.


Equally important is doing something with what we ‘know’; with what we ‘understand’. We get up and act. We move, we talk, we persuade, we make, we fix. We have impact. They say knowledge is power. But application shows what that power looks like in the world.


Let’s take it apart, look at the pieces, put them back together. What did we learn by looking deep inside? The components, the connections, the structure. Then we have…


…putting different parts together in new ways – making better things (or things better) – solving a problem, creating an object of value that has not existed before.


Finally, e-valuation – the ‘drawing out of value’. Asking how it stacks up against some agreed criteria; allocating worth accordingly.

There is no high- or low-order thinking, only different kinds, used for different purposes.

Does this idea resonate with you? All thinking is equal, if different? Let me know what you think…